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July 18, 2007



Bin Laden is a freedom fighter and a holy warrior. People like that who fight in God's name do not lose hope. To them everything is a blessing and a rallying cry. I don't think Bin Laden is disturbed by what's happening in Iraq, and I don't think he'd be disturbed by anything we'd do. He probably sees it all as God's plan. That's why you should never base policy decisions on whether or not you think it will "embolden" the enemy. Was not Jobe emboldened to be ever more faithful regardless of the evils done to him by God? Jobe is the ideal for every fundamentalist: stick to your guns, no matter what!

Have you ever tried commenting a lot on forums? Well, there are these "forum terrorists", if you will, affectionately called Trolls. What emboldens a Troll? Well, anything really. If you respond politely, they troll. If you respond aggressively, they troll. If you troll them in return, they troll. However, if you ignore them... they eventually get bored and go away. The best way to get rid of them, of course, is to kill (ban) them. But then they just get a new account and troll under a different name. So then you ban that account, and they get another, and so on. Really, banning an account won't really get rid of a Troll if it really wants to terrorize the forums. So it's best to just ignore them entirely and go on with your life. Now, I'm not going to claim that we should ignore terrorist threats. But I think an isolationist policy at this stage in the game might not be so bad. Get out of the affairs of other nations to cool the global tempers directed at the US, and terrorism (at least terrorism that threatens us) will gradually subside. It might be a little bit selfish, but sometimes what's best for the self is also what's best for everyone else.


Sadly, most of this narrative is only possible if one does not see much distinction between Shia and Sunni and further does not understand the critical an ongoing miscalculation of Al Qaeda. The second item first: I do not think that Al Qaeda (outside of Iraq) views the internecine warfare between Sunni and Shia to be an embarrassment. Shia are rafidi scum and American stooges, and the conflict will wake up the sleeping Sunni world to fight them. Which leads to the first: for Al Qaeda, the warfare *isn't* internecine: the Shia are apostates hardly better than atheists. Their "death squads" just prove it.

Essentially, I think Nathan looks at Islamic society through the wrong end of the telescope and projects a bin Laden who understands the fine divisions in Western society and lumps his own together largely in American terms.


Addendum: it is a miscalculation for bin Laden to imagine the Islamic world at large views Shia the way he does, such that it can be "awakened" to its perfidy. Though his narrative plays well to those that already think like him, it's an embarrassment in the wider Islamic world that will come to bite him on the bum once we stop distracting the Arab world.


It's worth noting that in the event of a wider civil war in Iraq, the Sunnis would have state sponsors to back them against Iranian-sponsored Shia. These state sponsors do not have friendly relations with Al Qaeda.


And yet one more remark:

Though bin Laden's sort of mujahadeen were those through whom the CIA channeled the bulk of their aid, they have only very limited claim to having beaten the Soviets. Indigenous mujahadeen (e.g. Ahmad Shah Masood) formed the backbone of resistance but were more difficult for us to access because they were neither international nor so reliably anti-Soviet as the arab expeditionary mujahadeen of which bin Laden was an exemplar.

It's also notable that the US was once quite well liked in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Rambo was massively popular), but was never much more than tolerated by the takfiris through whom we channeled so much of our aid.

I just want to post a link this letter from Masood (an earlier victim of an Al Qaeda suicide bombing) in lament that we allowed Afghanistan to languish for so long.

Every type of damage we've caused Al Qaeda (or caused them to do to themselves) could have been accomplished in Afghanistan, but with more local goodwill, greater international legitimacy and more overall effectiveness. I *still* think we can do this, though I feel it will be somewhat more uphill a battle by now.

Nathan Smith

re: "I think an isolationist policy at this stage in the game might not be so bad. Get out of the affairs of other nations to cool the global tempers directed at the US, and terrorism (at least terrorism that threatens us) will gradually subside. It might be a little bit selfish, but sometimes what's best for the self is also what's best for everyone else."

Maybe sometimes that is the case. A stopped clock is right twice a day. But Tom makes no argument that US isolationism would benefit us. The last time we tried that, in the 1920s and 1930s, the result was tens of millions of dead. I think all indications are that the result would be the same now-- or an order of magnitude bigger. And it would come back to haunt us soon enough anyway. Remember Pearl Harbor?

The analogy between trolls and terrorists is extremely weak. Ignoring trolls may be a good idea, but how can we ignore terrorists? "Chicago's gone? Oh well. Nukes in New York? Yawn... what's on the menu today?" Trolls don't do any real harm. Terrorists do. If bin Laden was just making extremist pronouncements, I wouldn't worry.

In response to Nato, I'm saying what I would do if *I* were bin Laden. Whether the real bin Laden would have been smart enough to execute that strategy, I don't know. But bin Laden had a very strong hand in 2002. Now he's toast. His chief asset was never military, it was ideology, and it was destroyed by the US liberation of Iraq.

re: "Every type of damage we've caused Al Qaeda (or caused them to do to themselves) could have been accomplished in Afghanistan..."

Did Nato read the article? I just finished resoundingly refuting this conventional wisdom. All we could do in Afghanistan was damage their infrastructure. Afghanistan is too marginal to be the place where we could sow fatal complications for al-Qaeda's *ideological* challenge.


What article? I just looked over the old "Police Principle" article and then the main post, and I can't see where Nathan refutes my apparently conventional wisdom regarding doing damage to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Perhaps I'm looking in the wrong place.

Nathan Smith

The entire theme of the post is that after Afghanistan in 2002 bin Laden still had a strong hand. The defeat of the Taliban was a nasty surprise, but he was still in a position to make common cause with the liberal-left on major cause celebre issues, not just Palestine but also the sanctions in Iraq and US troops in Saudi Arabia. It was quite possible, then, to manage the stand-off with the West and the PR reverberations of 9/11 to al-Qaeda's advantage.

Iraq forced al-Qaeda to turn its struggle with the US into brutal terrorist warfare against the Iraqi people and their will to democracy. In doing so, they forfeited all hope of a tacit alliance with the Western liberal-left which was always their best hope, and by becoming mass-murderers of their fellow Arab-Muslims they also sunk their reputation in the Arab world.

Iraq sowed fatal complications for al-Qaeda's ideological challenge to the West. Afghanistan could never have achieved anything remotely similar.


Are you arguing that US isolationism imposed terrible post-war sanctions on Germany, elected the Nazis, put Hitler in power, and allowed Germany to romp through Europe? Who really was responsible for all those deaths? It sure wasn't America. You can blame the German people, you can blame Europe for humbling and humiliating Germany, you can blame Russia and Stalin for most of the death in the USSR. But you can't really blame America, especially an America that wasn't even mobilized and didn't have the immediate military capacity to do much good anyway.

Terrorists are like Trolls in that they want attention, and they are willing to do almost anything to get it. We legitimize their methods when we suspend our liberties out of fear, or when we compromise our ideals, say through "enhanced interrogation techniques", in the name of self-defense. You talk about terrorists planting nukes in America as if that's somehow inevitable, and in the meantime our own government is drawing up plans to invade Iran, a country that is totally defenseless against us and is not even remotely a threat right now, and practically none of our elected officials will take a preemptive nuclear strike off the table. You tell me which is more reasonable: leaving Iran alone or threatening to preemptively nuke them? Which do you think would inspire Iran to give nukes to terrorists if they ever got them? Isolationism would not lead to terrorists destroying our cities, it would remove their very reasons for doing so.


After all, why hasn't Al-Qaeda attacked Bhutan or Mexico or South Africa or Iceland or any other number of internationally benign countries?

Also, going back to WWII, it could be argued (and in fact it is argued by Osama Bin Laden) that our nuking of Japan was one of the worst atrocities in the history of man. To be fair, we didn't really know how destructive the bomb would be, but on the other hand, we did drop a second one, and there were plans to drop more.


Oh, then I guess I was just disputing your central thesis. Al Qaeda in 2002 was discredited even in Islamist eyes. Terrorists more narrowly concerned with the Palestinian conflict were actually damaged by association. Them being able to move forward by somehow attempting to align themselves with Western liberals* is a complete fantasy. Al Qaeda would have had to rely on Chechnya and Afghanistan, since Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and Hezbollah already pretty much claimed most Islamist energy generated by Israel and sanctions on Iraq. In Afghanistan the cards were stacked heavily against them, and Chechnya pitted them against Moscow, not Washington.

And what is Al Qaeda doing in Afghanistan? Attacking fellow Muslims? They're continuing to discredit themselves there, too, though Iraq has overshadowed Afghanistan.

*A few embarrassing extremists like Ward Churchill might make some sort of deranged common cause, but these people have zero currency in Western society and don't register in Arab circles.


I have to say that if dropping the bombs on Japan was an atrocity, it wasn't necessarily an unjustified one. That is to say, war is itself a sort of atrocity, but sometimes it's less atrocious than other options.

Nathan Smith

Well, maybe. But it's hard to see how Western liberals would have avoided developing a sort of tacit alliance with al-Qaeda if they agreed with them on all the major issues that al-Qaeda was fighting for. At any rate, in my own case, before the invasion of Iraq, *I* felt like I was in a complicated position, since I basically agreed with bin Laden about Saudi Arabia and the Iraqi sanctions. Again, maybe bin Laden wouldn't have been smart enough to make the tacit alliance happen. But I think *I* could have pulled it off, were I in bin Laden's shoes in 2002.

Yes, al-Qaeda is attacking fellow Muslims in Afghanistan, but not *Arab* Muslims. I'm pretty sure that makes a big difference to how an ongoing struggle in Afghanistan would be perceived in the Arab world. Afghanistan is basically a backwater, and anyway there's been intermittent tribal warfare there for generations. More tribal warfare in remote Afghanistan would never have the same pyschological impact as when al-Qaeda is forced to blow people up in the streets of Baghdad all the time.


I will say that the stakes in Iraq are higher and the penalty for failure commensurately higher, for both Al Qaeda and ourselves. The thing is that Iraq isn't truly zero-sum between the US and Al Qaeda: we can't both win in Iraq, but we *can* both lose.

Nathan Smith

Nato makes a useful point, though I'll quibble a little bit. Al-Qaeda can lose, yes. Whether we can lose depends on how you define "lose." Thanks to a process of inflation in mission objectives, "winning" now means something like: Establish a stable democracy in Iraq which is an ally in the war against terror. In terms of that objective we can lose. In terms of the basic, original, core objective of the war-- overthrowing Saddam Hussein-- we can't lose.

Nor is there a significant probability of a neo-Saddam coming to power, i.e., another Sunni strongman.

If the verdict of history in the near term is that Iraq is a lost war, it will be a very odd kind of lost war. You might say that Iraq will fit into the category of lost wars in something like the way abortion fits into the category of constitutional rights.

Anyway, if we think of Iraq as part of the war on terror, then if al-Qaeda loses in Iraq, that *IS* to some extent a victory for the US. That's basically the core of "realist" case for Iraq: we set al-Qaeda up for an inevitable and fatal defeat, on both the material and ideological planes.


I meant "lose" in the sense of having one's overall position in the world damaged rather than advanced.

Nathan Smith

But that's not what it means to lose a war. If you fight a war against someone who could have been a useful ally; if you fight a war that makes other fear you and build up their defense and alliances in response; if you fight a war that is too costly; in all these and many other situations, you might damage your position in the world even if you win the war.

"Having one's overall position damaged rather than advanced" is not a worthwhile definition of losing a war, because it's almost always going to be too vague to tell whether you've advanced your position or not. Did we "win" World War II? We destroyed the Nazis and the Japanese imperialists, but we empowered global communism and helped to precipitate the collapse of the empires of our European allies. You can make arguments either way. But that's silly. Of course we won World War II. We defeated our enemies and achieved the original objectives of the war. Whether it improved our overall position in the world, whatever that means, is secondary, or simply irrelevant.

By this more prosaic and workable definition, the possibilities in Iraq are victory and partial victory/stalemate. None of the realistically possible outcomes of the conflict could accurately be characterized by the term "loss."


Well, that's good - Al Qaeda will *never* win a war because their mission creep is way worse than ours: their goal is nothing less than the founding of a new pan-Islamic caliphate, which is completely preposterous.

Nathan Smith

That's their ultimate goal, but it doesn't mean that the achievement of smaller desiderata can't count as victories. When we withdrew from Saudi Arabia, that would have counted as a victory (if not exactly "winning a war"), had it not been eclipsed by the invasion of Iraq.

Another reason that al-Qaeda will never win a war is that they're not exactly a war-fighting entity. Terrorism and war might overlap but they're not the same thing.

The brilliant thing about 9/11 was that it was *asymmetric*. Granted that our war-fighting capacity is second to none and infinitely superior to al-Qaeda's, that doesn't matter much if our enemy is a non-state actor against which one can't fight a conventional war. The brilliant thing about Iraq is that it turned asymmetric war inside out: we used our war-fighting capacity, not really in itself the tool needed to deal with al-Qaeda, to transform the map of ideological competition to al-Qaeda's disadvantage.


"The brilliant thing about Iraq is that it turned asymmetric war inside out: we used our war-fighting capacity, not really in itself the tool needed to deal with al-Qaeda, to transform the map of ideological competition to al-Qaeda's disadvantage."

I would agree, if I felt Iraq had gone well. Even now, I don't think Al Qaeda can lose completely unless we leave or a miracle occurs and Iraq becomes a secure and stable democratic state. Simply put, our failure to achieve success will count as a semi-victory for them while our continual presence to some degree excuses (in the minds of their target audience) their excesses. When we leave, however, there will be much less to mask how unwelcome they have made themselves and how bankrupt their entire project is.

Groups like Al Qaeda always make themselves unwelcome sooner or later. Even the ultra-fundamentalist Pashtun got tired of them by 2001 such that the Taliban regime they supported nearly evaporated. A power vacuum and Pakistani circumstances have reconstituted them to some extent, but it seems that Taliban stock remains low in Afghanistan proper.


Much of the discussion that precedes this comment presupposes that something called "al-Qai'da" still exists. I don't think it does. If bin Laden is still alive, he certainly cannot be said to exist within any form of command structure and neither does it seem do any of his lieutenants. Bin Laden and those within his pre-9/11 circle have about as much to do with the likes of "al-Qa'ida in Iraq" as Microsoft has to do with the $5 version of Vista you can buy in the Peshawar bazaar. Which is to say that, before saying that you believe al-Qa'ida thinks this now or can win this war or that war, you should really define what al-Qa'ida is. I don't think it is that easy.

Nathan's essay, though, raises an interesting point about the motivations for the Iraq war. It is perfectly plausible, I think, that the war was in part driven by the desire to remove the need for stationing U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and, in so doing, undercut one of bin Laden's key policy planks (I can't believe that the effects of the sanctions entered much into anyone's calculations, be it American or Islamist). In that sense, I think it is fair to argue that the war was motivated by to cut into bin Laden's recruiting power. And yes, one could say that because of the Iraq War, bin Laden could no longer use the stationing of U.S. troops on the Arabian peninsula as a recruiting tool.

This is a completely academic point, though. Even if we were to assume that the Iraq War was successful in squashing bin Laden's ability to attract support in the Muslim world (which is a highly suspect claim), the victory, is well, more than a little Phyrric. We shot the soldier just so we could get cluster bombed. Yay. I have a hard time believing that the planners of the Iraq War were so blinkered to believe that the likes of pre-9/11 al-Qa'ida was the only threat source and that undercutting bin Laden's pre-9/11 talking points could only make the world safer for Americans, irregardless of the other consequences such actions provoked, but sometimes I wonder whether I have any choice.

Nathan Smith

It's not just to undercut bin Laden's pre-9/11 talking points. More fundamentally-- by this account, anyway-- it was to reclaim the moral high ground. The trouble wasn't just that bin Laden had a certain recruiting power in the Muslim world: the trouble was that he had some JUST CAUSES that were the basis of that recruiting power.

To call Iraq a "more than a little Pyrrhic" victory is a step forward from the confused idea that the war in Iraq is lost or losable. Having achieved our main war objectives long ago, we can't lose, and it would be very helpful simply from the point of view of intellectual clarity if this were generally understood and acknowledged; but yes, the victory *may* turn out to be Pyrrhic. However, I don't see why that's a sure or even a likely outcome.

We've lost some soldiers-- it's a war, after all-- but by no means enough to cripple us militarily. The war hasn't even destroyed our power to take out Iran, should we want to do so, since that would rely mainly on the Air Force.

To talk about terrible diplomatic setbacks etc. has been a popular parlor game among the intelligentsia for the past few years, but the actual facts are quite different: France and Germany now have their most Atlanticist leaders in a generation; the Canadians threw out their sadsack Liberal Chirac-wannabes and elected pro-American Harper; ultra-pro-American Tony Blair got himself re-elected and his hand-picked successor is doing just fine; and Japan and India have aligned themselves more with America than before.

I think the biggest psychological cost of the war in Iraq for Americans has been that Americans' faith in their birthright of being the good guys has been shaken. But we weren't the good guys in 2000; we were starving children in Iraq. Being the good guys is harder than we thought back then. In Iraq, we're discovering how hard. That's a lesson worth learning.


Andrew: Al Qaeda is certainly loosely organized relative to an official military, but I don't think it's that hard to define. Common Takfiri ideology* and the seeking of the blessing of continuity-figures for the operations of decentralized groups tie Al Qaeda together about as well as any large, international terrorist group.

Nathan: Counting dead soldiers is a poor measure of damage to our ability to present a credible threat. The reference to "taking out" Iran via air power is disquieting, to say the least.

*Which has importantly dissimilar elements from other Sunni Islamist terror groups like Islamic Jihad.

Nathan Smith

Sorry. I meant "taking out" Iran's nuclear weapons. Which is different from taking out Iran; that was just a typo, but a rather egregious one. And I'm also not saying that we *should* take out Iran's nuclear weapons. My point was simply that our ability to do so hasn't been impacted one way or the other by the Iraq War.

Dead soldiers aren't a measure of our ability to present a credible threat, of course. Living ones are, to some extent. Of course, while we're engaged in Iraq that does limit our ability to engage in ground wars elsewhere, and by extension limits our ability to credibly threaten to do so. Though on the other hand if there were a really dangerous immediate threat we could always move troops from Iraq to somewhere else; and we still have the threat of air war.

To the extent that the credible threat of American power has been weakened, that's not because our military capacity is overstretched, but because of strategic confusion. A threat takes the form of "Don't do X or we'll do Y..." Our problem isn't the weakness of our Y, it's that we don't know the X.


"Though on the other hand if there were a really dangerous immediate threat we could always move troops from Iraq to somewhere else..."

You do realize that there are units on 15 month deployments now, right? And that the Army hasn't been able to meet its recruiting or retention goals? And that at current troop levels we'll be forced to withdraw a large number of troops in the coming Spring? Our forces are stretched dangerously thin. It's easy to *say* we can stay the course, maintain troop levels, move troops around if we need to, and continue to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on the war, but the reality is that's pushing our country to the brink of what we can possibly sustain, and I personally feel it's morally wrong to abuse our troops like that. Imagine a soldier who has dreams and ambitions outside of the military, has a wife and kids, wants to go to college, wants to celebrate the holidays with family, etc. Now take that person and deploy him for a year in hostile territory, and then deploy him for another year 4 months after getting back, and then deploy him for another 15 months 4 months after that. That person's life and dreams will be severely damaged, maybe irreparably, after all of that. There's a reason the divorce rate in the military is so high. There's a reason so many troops suffer from psychological problems for the rest of their lives. Death is only a very small part of the damage being done to our troops.

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